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The House On The River

Duncan R. Smith

September 2020 978-1-7351779-1-5


An elderly mother's stroke imperils the circumstances of her older son (Ted), 52 years old and severely developmentally disabled, who has spent the last 40 or so years with his mother and younger brother (Nick) in the house of the title.  If the mother fails to recover, a guardian will have to be appointed by Surrogate Court, and given his age and declining health, it is almost certain any guardian would consign Ted to an institution, a prospect that his mother has spent her life trying to avoid and that the younger brother is powerless to prevent.

The novel opens with the visit of the mother's 29-year-old niece, Linnie Carson (Linnie is short for Evelyn), whose beloved namesake aunt has all but raised her.  Her life in disarray, Linnie doesn't imagine or want a role, but gets swept up in a family drama that rages through the house and Surrogate Court.  Ted's proclivity to wander alone at night makes it more likely that he will wind up in an institutional home, however much he might hate it, because a few corpses of developmentally disabled adults, about Ted's age, start turning up in the neighborhood, oddly disfigured.


[Linnie has driven cross-state to visit her aunt, who has recently had a stroke.  Linnie is heartbroken to find her aunt having difficulty speaking, this from a woman who has made herself an advocate and a voice for the developmentally disabled.  That evening, Linnie has dinner in town.  The first chapter concludes:]

   A couple of hours later, Linnie drove three miles upriver to a waterfront restaurant in Lewiston, where Evelyn's lawyer, Brendan O'Connor, awaited her.  In his early thirties, he seemed too young for the relic of a bow-tie that he often wore with well-tailored suits and handsome dress shirts.  She wondered, given his boyish good looks, if the bow-tie might be an affectation of modesty, an out-of-date fashion tacked onto a lithe, athletic body.  Or maybe there was no conceit to it: she'd always found Brendan easy-going and charming, and even more so after he divorced a woman she never much liked.

  Brendan stood to greet her and seated her at his table on the porch, which was spitting distance from the river.  Linnie left her parka on: a steady chill blew from the Canadian bluffs across the river.

  "Any trouble finding it?" he asked, reclaiming his chair.

  "It's be hard to miss." She nodded at the river; tiny eddies were darkening in the failing light, trailing tendrils of ink.  "You said it was on the river."

  "So what did you think?  When you saw Evelyn?"

  "I didn't know what to expect.  Have you talked to her doctor this week?"

  "He isn't much help.  He speaks in broad generalities.  Never commits to anything specific."

  Brendan must have noticed Linnie's disappointment because he changed his tone.  "Well, he thinks improvement's possible, she might walk again, and you know Evelyn, she won't want anyone else messing around in her garden, dead-heading the wrong flowers."

  "Your father was her lawyer too, right?  I remember him so well."

  "He called Evelyn his dearest friend and smartest client.  I inherited her from him."

  "And your bow-ties?"

  "Them, too."

  "I'm not making fun of them," Linnie added, although in truth she supposed she had been.

  "You wouldn't be the first."  Brendan shrugged.  "Anyway, thanks for coming.  Your aunt had been dealing with some things before the stroke.  About eight weeks ago, she was in my office, having me draw up a new will and trust.  Obviously, no one expected the stroke, but she's always had one issue that dominates her planning.  Who's going to look after the boys when she can't?"  He flinched.  "Do you mind if I refer to them like that?  'The boys?'  I don't mean-"

  "It's fine."  For as long as Linnie could remember, everyone in and out of the family had referred to Evelyn's two sons as "the boys."  Nick and Ted would have been the last to take offense at the term, which Evelyn herself used.

  "The thing is," Brendan continued, "your aunt wants to make sure they're both looked after.  She's committed most of her assets to a trust to provide for their expenses and asked that I be the trustee."

  "That's great."  Linnie didn't see how the issue involved her and felt relieved that it didn't.

  "That's the easy half.  Her biggest concern is that Ted and Nick get to keep living at the house."

  "That's a no-brainer."  She understood, from his look, that it wasn't.  "You're kidding?"

  "It's complicated.  The court will eventually require that a guardian be appointed.  Someone to look after Ted, .. and maybe Nick."

  "Wouldn't that be Margot?"  Margot was the eldest of Evelyn's offspring, a year older than her brother Ted.

  "You're the one she designated.  I asked her if she wanted to discuss the idea with you first, but Evelyn said to go ahead and draft the new will."

  "Why didn't she ask me?"

  "I'm sure she planned to."

  "Then why didn't you ask?"

  "It's not my job.  I'm certain Evelyn thought there'd be a lot more time before any of this would be dropped in your lap.  And there's nothing binding in the nomination.  It would need your consent and the court's.  The court has final say, and you could always decline."

  "Wait."  Linnie had turned twenty-nine a month earlier.  Though she'd spent much of the past year imagining a new life - and good friends were urging her to join them in Seattle - nothing that she had envisioned included caring for a child almost twice her own age.  Ted's moods were impenetrable and ill-tempered, and he was subject to occasional incontinence.

  "You think I'd pack up and leave Upstate New York," she asked, "only to move to the other side of Upstate New York?  Is this another Buffalo joke?  'What's a two-time loser?'"

  "I'm not presuming anything.  I don't know what you or your husband would want.  How is he, by the way?"

  Linnie felt betrayed by the naked disarray of her own life.  Her husband's betrayals, not being ones of the flesh, failed to give her automatic grounds for divorce, and her signature remained alongside his on the apartment lease, the car loan, the credit cards and their bundle of debt.  "It's a mess," she admitted.

  Linnie glanced at the docks below, where a few police officers had congregated, then looked at Brendan.  He had lively green eyes, a strong jaw and  brow, and a ridge on his nose that suggested a sports injury.  His lips were, to her mind, perfect.

  Linnie wondered if he found her as attractive as she found him.  Her bulky parka hid her figure, and she hadn't washed her light brown hair that morning and hadn't been to a hairdresser for "highlights" in months.

  "My marriage is pretty well shot," she continued, "and I sort of told Evelyn as much."  A thought provoked her.  "God.  Was Evelyn talking about my marriage?  She'd 'rescue' me with this guardian business?"

  "Not at all."  Brendan cleared his throat and spoke softly.  "Evelyn's acting in her interest, not yours."

  "I know it."  Linnie was irritated at her aunt's willfulness: it would be just like Evelyn to make demands from the grave.  "Look, I'm owed vacation, and I'll take a leave of absence if I have to, but it's not about the boys.  The only reason I'm here is her."

  "Me, too."  Brendan's eyes found hers.  "When my father first got ill, Evelyn took charge, lined up doctors, you name it."

  "I can imagine."

  "Anyway, at the moment everything's, well.." he fluttered a hand, "in limbo.  God willing, Evelyn will recover and there'll be a long time to figure out what happens next."

  "And if she doesn't?"

  "Christ, it's a pickle.  Your nomination as a guardian wouldn't be considered valid by a court.  Technically, we can't submit Evelyn's will to the court."

  "Why not?"

  "Because she's still alive."

  He paused when a beacon of light shot along the porch's rail.  Beneath them, a policeman swept his flashlight along the river's edge.

   Brendan nodded at the officer.  "They're trying to figure out where the victim went in the river.  The poor guy they found today.  You hear about it?

  "Not much."

  "I was going to have my boat put in the water, but Youngstown was shut down.  They found a body by the yacht club.  The victim's about Ted's age.  Also significantly disabled.  Pretty much a ward of O.M.R.D.D."  He spelled it out when he saw she wasn't familiar with the acronym.  "It's a state organization for MRs - mentally retarded - and DDs - developmentally disabled.  I don't know if the victim did any of the programs Ted does."

  "He drowned?"  Linnie looked at the river doubtfully; no one willingly went in the water this time of year.

  "It's not clear.  Apparently, the coroner found a hole in his head.  Chilling, isn't it?  Somebody drilled a hole in the head of someone like Ted."